To examine the course of contemporary Chinese art history, one cannot dismiss the presence of Yue Minjun, a key figure from the renowned “Cynical Realism” current. With his creation of the immensely popular self-mocking laughing face motif, Yue is considered to be one of the most iconic representatives of contemporary Chinese art alongside Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun. Indeed, jokes and mockery as reflected by the smiling face have always been central to the artist’s oeuvre, as they accurately reflect the helplessness the Chinese society felt towards the social and political realities in the early 1990’s. To many curators and scholars alike, Yue’s paintings not only express a pessimistic resistance, but also skillfully deploy laughter as his ultimate weapon. As he previously stated, “Loud, hearty laughter; derisive laughter; mad laughter; laughter in the face of death; laughter at society--there seems a bit of all of these. To laugh is to refuse to think. When the mind is faced with certain things, it cannot think or finds it hard to think, and wants to escape. This is an era that makes people laugh.” Among all his works, Great Joy (Lot 1049) from 1992 to 1993 is certainly the monumental masterpiece that attests to the pervasive irony and political turmoil that seeped through the general Chinese society in the early 90s. It is almost impossible to find any traces of the Tiananmen Square in Yue’s later works, making the appearance of this political symbol in Great Joy both extremely rare and important. The scale of the repeated figures in the present work is also unprecedented among Yue’s oeuvre, not only echoing the composition of Gweong Gweong from the same year, but also making it to be arguably the most mature work from Yue Minjun’s early career.
Born in 1962 in Heilongjiang, Yue Minjun is part of the third generation of artists after the Cultural Revolution. In 1991, his move to the artist village Yuanmingyuan on the outskirt of Beijing was an important turning point in the young artist’s career. It was during his stay there where he could experience true artistic freedom away from the limits imposed by the government and academia. “This is exactly the life that I want. Everything is so great. It is not so difficult after all to become an independent artist. The rent is cheap, and the surroundings are better than studios. The most important thing is I can finally determine my own way of life.”1 One of his first paintings created in Yuanmingyuan in 1991 was On the Rostrum of Tiananmen. It is often considered to be representative of his early period as it depicts four Chinese youths with different appearances standing atop the gate at Tiananmen Square where Mao Zedong pronounced the founding of the People’s Republic of China, with one of them laughing beyond the frame. As one will see, only two years later, Yue was able to reinvent the image of the Tiananmen rostrum with Great Joy, developing both in terms of scale and composition.
Tiananmen Square has always been regarded as the symbolic centre of China’s political power. The large public square in front of the gate tower also becomes the perfect place for mass gatherings and movements. Indeed, every time when the square is populated, it would certainly forecast dramatic changes within the Chinese society. From the Ming Dynasty to the present day, the square is frequently used as the site of various political uprisings such as the April Fifth Incident in 1976 and Tiananmen Incident in 1989. Throughout the years, the Tiananmen rostrum seems to have gained parallel status as the Chairman Mao portrait, finding its way into many contemporary Chinese artists’ works to reflect and question on the controlling presence of the Communist regime. However, in comparison with other artists’ and even his own works, Great Joy is the only work that offers the most elaborate composition to directly pinpoint the notion of uprising and rebellion.
In the work, an “army” of smiling men donning non-descript grey sweaters and black pants is seen stationed in front of Tiananmen Square in a wedge formation. The wedge, a traditional battlefield tactic of the Roman army, is known to be an aggressive formation that aimed to crack open enemy lines. Considering this, these cloned figures are indeed Yue’s most explicit and ambitious attempt in empowering the citizens of China; replacing the PLA soldiers as true guardians of freedom and peace provided by the square. The rostrum of Tiananmen is almost hidden behind this mass gathering, only showcasing a glimpse of the orange glazed tiles of the roof, behind which hangs a fading rainbow from above. In many ways, comparing the identical attire and postures, these smiling figures in the present lot are counter-parts to Gweong Gweong from the same year. However, unlike the loose placement of the characters in Gweong Gweong, the figures in Great Joy are ever more defined and coherent, actively initiating themselves as the focal point of the piece.
Aside from the political implications, the present piece is one of the first works to feature the file and repeated face motif. On this, Li Xianting has interpreted the tendency of Yue Minjun’s human figures to coalesce into rows and files as connoting commercial and mechanical mass reproduction and reflecting the uncanny absurdness that the Chinese feel towards their country’s rapid and thorough commercialization, “[Yue] consumes totalitarian ideology commercially and uses totalitarian, personhood-denying compositions to symbolize commercial culture’s erosion of humanity, creating a feeling of double absurdity.” When looked upon closely, Yue’s figures’ inexplicable laughter from Great Joy also carry an ethos of satire and joking indifference. It is these laughing figures that have since become the emblem to Yue Minjun’s decade- long practice, transforming brilliantly into his replicate self-portraits that garnered critical attention from all around the world.
1 Yue Minjun, Sichuan Art Publishing, 2007
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